The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley
In reading this book I could not help but find it particularly amusing the way that the author dealt with the subject of comparing America’s woefully mediocre education with those nations that succeed the best around the world through the eyes of three American foreign exchange students in different countries abroad by commenting on her general attempts to avoid writing about education at all costs as a reporter. It is not difficult to understand why writing about education is such a difficult and frequently unpleasant matter. After all, writing about education in the United States (or any other country) involves perverse incentives that are dealt with as well as a high degree of entrenched political interests and the difficulty in providing any meaningful improvement despite the continual push for reforms that usually just make education more expensive without making it better. The author shows a highly critical attitude towards American approaches in education, including our unrequited love affair for technology and a distinct lack of focus in the importance of rigor when it comes to learning. The author suggests, not very subtly, that America has the sort of education system that we deserve based on our own priorities.
This book is a short one at a bit less than 250 pages and is divided into three parts. In the first part of the book the author examines the rankings for the best education systems in the world (1) and explores three teens leaving home and seeking to go abroad in the fall, Kim, a dissatisfied high school student in Oklahoma who decides to go to Finland, Eric, a (formerly) closeted IB graduate from Minnesota who decides to do a gap year in South Korea, and Tom, a Gettysburg high school student who decides to study in Poland. The author then explores the education systems of these countries through the children, showing Finland’s focus on tough standards for teachers that increases their credibility, South Korea’s pressure cooker atmosphere, and Poland’s rise from mediocrity to recognition for high standards and achievement at present. And through it all the author looks at the ups and downs faced by the Americans abroad and, perhaps most intriguingly, what awaited them upon their return to the United States and their efforts at furthering their education and learning from the experiences they had, along with some discussions about some of the people they met along the way.
The book as a whole is a winning account of the struggles and achievements faced by ambitious American exchange students seeking to understand life and education abroad. Whether it is in struggling with foreign languages or dealing with the different approaches that foreign countries take to education, the author is able to come up with some sensible ways that America could, if it wanted to, improve its standing in education with the rest of the world in some very simple ways. First, education itself, and not merely self-esteem or sports, needs to be made the priority by parents and teachers and students alike. Second, standards need to be increased by teachers. People cannot instill a love for learning–especially subjects like math–if they are afraid of the subjects themselves. Far too many people get education degrees and there is far too little prestige in the field as a whole, and if we want better education, that has to change. In addition, students need to learn a fair amount of rigor–perhaps not to the level of South Korea, but certainly more than we have at present. Learning is hard work, and people need to equip themselves to do it, if they want to learn.